On Tuesday, the U.S. government handed over the Chola age Sripuranthan Ganesha idol and 200 other stolen Indian artefacts to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with U.S. Attorney-General Loretta Lynch in attendance.
Behind the photo-op in Washington is a potboiler of a story, spread across continents, involving the governments of India and the United States, policemen in Tamil Nadu and a voluntary group — the India Pride Project (IPP), to bring the Ganesha idol home.
Blogs come in handy
Speaking to The Hindu, co-founder of the IPP Anurag Saxena said the return of the idol was a three-year labour of love for the group. It was in 2013 that his IPP colleague, Vijay Kumar Sundaresan, an accountant in the shipping sector, matched the photograph of the idol taken by the French Institute at Puducherry (IFP) with that of an idol housed in the Toledo Museum of Art (TMA) in Ohio, United States. His blogs, both on his own site and at IPP, piqued the interest of the local press who contacted the TMA over the stolen idol. In an ongoing investigation by the U.S. Homeland Security department into art dealer Subhash Kapoor’s questionable dealings, the Ganesha idol was among the many object d’arts found to be stolen and housed in museums across the world.
Mr. Kapoor is undergoing trial in Tamil Nadu in various cases of idol thefts. The role of Brenton Easter, who heads the antiques division at the Homeland Security Investigation (HSI), was crucial in this matter.
“The role of groups like ours is basically knowing that an artefact of this kind has gone missing and establishing that it is missing, like filing FIRs and getting the law enforcement agencies in. Then come the investigations into where these artefacts may have landed up, matching photographs, contacting people in the art world etc. The final restitution demand and its acceptance are between governments,” said Mr. Saxena, otherwise working as the Asia Pacific CEO for the World Education Council in Singapore.
In the case of the Ganesha idol, Mr. Sundaresan’s tip off and painstaking matching of pictures (showing at least 19 similarities between the idol in Toledo and the picture kept by the IFP) were decisive in terms of establishing that the art work was stolen.
Mr. Saxena, in fact, spends the first week of every month in New Delhi meeting with officials in the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and the Ministry of Culture to push for more such restitutions. “We are a group of volunteers and term ourselves a network rather than any thing else,” he said.
“When idols like the Nataraja at Brihadeeswara temple that was recently returned by the Australian government or even the Ganesha idol are stolen from temples, it is not just a theft of our material resources, the whole community suffers as a result, because of the violation of the belief systems that take place,” he said. “The government’s role is important, but it cannot do everything,” he said.
Mr. Saxena adds that the 200 artefacts returned by the U.S. government were “very significant.” “This set of artefacts is highly representative of wares sourced from various dealers, therefore it can allow the Indian Government to prosecute them successfully. It also covers not just new thefts, but old ones as well and from all parts of the country,” he said.
“It’s a start, and we hope that it does not sink back to tokenism in diplomacy,” he added. “Our Gods are coming back, they should be welcomed,” Mr. Saxena added.